Monday, August 16, 2010

Are You a Nestorian?

Over at his blog, Rev. Mason Beecroft posts his sermon from yesterday in which he laments that the LCMS calls August 15th "Mary, Mother of our Lord" instead of "Mary, Mother of God." (Okay, he rails). I think he overstates his case a bit too much -- I don't think it is inappropriate in the slightest to echo Elizabeth's words from the Gospel and call Mary the Mother of our Lord. I do prefer the term "Mother of God", for reasons which will be clear shortly - but is Mother of our Lord off base? No.

However, Rev. Beecroft does have good cause underlining his rant. Nestorianism is a problem.

So what is Nestorianism? Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople, and he ended up rejecting the idea of calling Mary the Mother of God. . . said that one could call her the Mother of Christ, but not the Mother of God. Well, let's think about this logically. Is Jesus God? Yes. Is Mary the Mother of Jesus? Yes. Therefore, is Mary the Mother of God? Yes. That child that Mary carries in her womb is God. Now, is that God the Father? No. Is He God the Spirit? No. But that Child is the 2nd Person of the Trinity, and when you see that Child, you see God.

So, when Nestorius said that Mary was only the mother of Christ and not the Mother of God, Nestorius said that Mary was the Mother of a Man who was the Christ, but not really the Mother of God. So what does this do? It splits Jesus into 2 - a Divine Part and a Human Part, that don't really act in concert. His Body is separated from His Divinity. And as such, Jesus isn't really Immanuel, God with us, any more. There's a man, a body with us, but "God" is still far off. It means that God doesn't really give His life for us upon the cross. . . because that life is just the body's life and not God's.

Now, Luther is actually sympathetic towards Nestorius, because Nestorius didn't think a lot of these things through -- but folks that followed after him did, and Nestorianism was a vile thing.

So where does that leave us today? Most Protestants have Nestorian leanings. What do I mean? Consider this typical protestant statement, "The Bread and Wine in the Lord's Supper can't be the Body and Blood of Jesus, because Jesus' Body and Blood are in heaven." That's a Nestorian view -- why? It puts limits upon what Jesus can do... separating His Body from His Divinity. If Jesus says, "This is My Body" - He's God, He can do it. But what we see in a lot of talk today is language limiting Jesus.

It is as though they were to say, "Jesus can't simply enter the locked upper room because Human Bodies don't do that!" Now, no one is going to say that (well, very few, there are some highly liberal scholars who say that someone must have let Him in) - but it's the same idea. Why can Jesus just enter the room? Because He is resurrected and glorified and exercises His divine power in His Body whenever He wills. Likewise, in the Supper, Jesus exercises His divine power in His Body whenever He wills, and He wills to give you His Body to eat and His Blood to drink for the forgiveness of your sins.

Okay, okay, we get it - but why is this really such a problem. . . why is it so bad if someone can't understand the Supper and wants to take a symbolic view? First off, no one can "understand" the Supper - I confess that it is Christ's Body and Blood, but this is a mystery that is beyond my little mind... don't be so arrogant as to think you can our ought comprehend the things of God. We confess what He has revealed.

Second, it denies the Word of God. "Did God really say" is the root of all temptation... this opens the door to all sorts of other temptations and tomfoolery with the Scriptures.

Third, and most importantly, it pulls God away from salvation. The point, the whole ideal of what salvation is rests upon the fact that God Himself comes to sinners - that the Good Shepherd finds you, the lost sheep, that He comes to you and heals you. And then, this horrid doctrine teaches that God doesn't really come to you. . . there could be nothing less comforting or horrific than that.

This is why you have so many Protestants talking about how one needs to go to God. . . they make God powerless. This is why you have so many worried about works - not in service to the neighbor, but in terms of what they have to do to get closer to Jesus. It's all law, it's all weight, it's all burden, and faith is crushed.

Do not be a Nestorian! Rather, simply confess what Christ has said to you.


Mason said...

Fr. Brown,
I'm not quite sure that I rant and rail, although I would certainly like to do as much. :) My issue is that we fail to use the language of our own confessions, not to mention the ecumenical creeds. There is certainly nothing wrong with saying Mary is the Mother of Our Lord, but it requires elaboration and clarification. It is not inappropriate, just insufficient. Mary, the Mother of God, is a bold, clear confession of the person of Christ.
Blessings to you in Christ.
+Fr. Beecroft

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

Pr. Brown,

I appreciate your approach to discussions about Mary.

You're absolutely right about the Nestorian thinking that creeps into Protestantism. "Mother of God" is certainly correct, when the focus is on the Person of Christ.

"Mother of God" has been twisted historically to be more of a veneration of Mary than a confession about the Person of Christ, so "Mother of God" is not without its ambiguity.

In fact, since so often in Scripture "God" refers specifically to the Person of the Father, "Mother of God" lends itself to even more confusion, as if Mary were the mother of God the Father, or the predecessora of the eternal Divine Being.

Confessional terms are useful in the context of the heresy or doctrine which they address. They do not always make for the best generalized statements outside of that context. "Mother of God" in a sermon or in a Bible class - great! "Mother of God" as an unexplained title on a calendar somewhere - potentially misleading.

George said...

okay, okay. perhaps you feel that saying "Mother of God" most clearly confesses that we are NOT nestorians.

Fine. But, rightly understood, saying that Mary is the "Mother of our Lord" confesses the same thing. If you don't have your congregation taught (or catechized if that's how you like to say it) that saying Jesus is Lord is confessing his full divinity, then use this festival to delve into that. Explain the use of kyrios in the LXX, talk about what we mean in the creed when we say Jesus is Lord.

I know you're afraid to lose the theotokos. But even worse would be to lose the understanding that Jesus Christ is Lord is a powerful ontological statement. How about making the words of Holy Scripture the centerpiece and elaborating with the words of the catholic tradition?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

George - I'm not sure who are are speaking to here - me or Rev. Beecroft. By in large I agree with you - nothing is wrong with calling Mary, Mother of our Lord (my pet peeve with Protestantism is that people don't realize that to say "Jesus is Lord" is saying "Jesus is God")... as long as not avoiding the phrase "Mother of God".

George said...

Oh, I wasn't specifically addressing either. I just thought that I should make a point that was relevant. And I guess the 2nd person "you" was meant generically.

But anyway, I think it's pretty important for us as Christians with rich traditional language to maintain the Scriptural language and explain how the language of our tradition explains/expounds it rather than making it seem like we have just one tradition among many.

Even if there were no other traditions, it would be worth maintaining Scriptural language above that of tradition.

Mason said...

So "Holy Trinity" is somehow deficient because it isn't found in the Bible? We should remember that the Holy Scriptures are a "tradition," in the sense they were handed over to the Church over time. And even the Holy Scriptures don't say that Mary was the "Mother of Our Lord." It is no more scriptural than "Mother of God." At the end of the day, it is more confusing to use the word "Lord" than "God." We know what "Lord" means because we are insiders. Everyone would know what we believe, teach, and confess if we used the language of our own confession as well as the ecumenical councils.

George said...


First of all, I never said that we should abandon the theotokos. Nothing of the kind. Nor should we abandon Trinity or "means of grace."

However, the jump from Luke 1:43 to calling Mary the "Mother of our Lord" is actually trivial. The jump to "mother of God" is one that is absolutely valid, and even centrally important to a correct understanding of Scripture, but not trivial.

To me the most important point is that it be clear in our own minds and in the ears of the hearer that our language is defined first and foremost by the inspired Word of God.

Trust me, I'm all about the confessions, using the language of the catechism and augsburg confession. However, I would also never preach a sermon which hinges on the idea that confessing "Mary the mother of God" is superior to confessing "Mary the mother of our Lord." If I really believed that, I might mention it and explain why, but by placing that issue right up front, makes too much of it.

Now, since you brought up the whole "Trinity" spectre (not that I ever denied that we should use creedal, conciliar, or confessional language), I also think we could be careful about that word. Care should be taken not to dissociate the word "Trinity" from the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The liturgy, the propers, and much hymnody is very conscious to connect the confession of the Trinity with the trinitarian name.

It's not wrong to use the word as short-hand, and anyone who denies the biblical trinitarian dogma is most certainly a heretic worthy of rebuke.

As for the Scriptures being "tradition," of course you're right. So also is the sacrament of the Lord's body and blood. However, nothing is more dangerous than confusing the inspired tradition with the traditions of men, no matter how good and salutary.

If only insiders understand that confessing Jesus Christ is Lord is saying that He is God, then that is a bigger problem than the LCMS choosing to name the feast day "Mary, the Mother of Our Lord."


Phillip Fischaber said...

It seems to me that the bigger problem here than Theotokos versus Kyriotokos is Article X of the Formula of Concord. We're not calling Mary, Mother of Our Lord, in deference to Elizabeth or to affirm that Jesus is Lord and Lord means God. It seems as though we call the festival St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord, for the s...ake of not looking Roman and looking more Protestant. This is clearly against FoC X. The SD says "This is because they make a show or pretend that our religion and that of the papists are not far apart in order to avoid persecution, or they pretend that the papist's ceremonies are not at least highly offensive to us. When ceremonies are intended for this purpose, and are required and received (as though through them contrary religions are reconciled and became one body), we cannot regard them as adiaphora. The same is true in trying to look more Protestant to avoid being associated with Rome by ignoring Mary.